In the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of 1066 one woman, in particular, stands out as the matriarch of the period: Emma of Normandy.
As wife of both Æthelred II and King Cnut, Emma of Normandy was the lynchpin of the story of the 11th century. As a Norman, and the mother of both a Danish king of England and a Saxon King of England, it was Emma who bound all three sides together in the conflict of 1066. Her story is suitably dramatic; with exile, tragedy and scandal all playing their part, starkly contrasting with the wealth and privilege of her role as the only twice-crowned Queen of England.
Emma was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, and his wife, Gunnora. Born in around 985/987, she was married to Æthelred at Winchester on 5 April 1002, at which time she was given the English name Ælfgifu, although in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle she is often referred to, simply, as ‘The Lady’. Her marriage with Æthelred was an attempt to seal a peace between England and Normandy, and to persuade the Normans not to allow the Viking raiders, who tormented England’s shores, to winter in their lands between raids into England. Despite the fact the Vikings continued to shelter in Normandy every winter, and raiding into England continued throughout the early years of the 11th century, the marriage was a success in that it produced two more sons and a daughter for Æthelred; a second family considering he was the father of as many as thirteen children by his first wife, Ælfgifu of York, including at least six sons.
Of Emma and Æthelred’s two sons the eldest, Edward, would eventually succeed his half-brother, Harthacnut, to the English throne in 1042, ruling until his death on 5 January 1066. Edward’s younger brother, Alfred, was cruelly murdered during the reign of his step-brother, Harold I Harefoot. Harold was the son of Cnut by his first, handfast wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton. Alfred had arrived in England in 1036, ostensibly to visit his mother, though there are also theories that he intended to mount a challenge for the throne, and was welcomed by Earl Godwin of Wessex. However, his party were ambushed whilst being entertained by Godwin and Alfred was seized and taken to the abbey at Ely in Cambridgeshire, where he was later blinded and either murdered, or succumbed to his wounds. Either way, he died on 5 February 1037 and was buried in Ely Cathedral. Edward and Alfred’s sister, Goda (or Godgifu), was married firstly to Drogo, Count of Mantes and, secondly to Eustace II, Count of Boulogne. One of her sons by Drogo, Ralph, was made Earl of Hereford by his uncle, Edward, but earned himself the insulting nickname Ralph the Timid after fleeing the Welsh in battle.
As the Viking raids increased from 1010 onwards, Æthelred’s position on the throne proved precarious and he sent his wife and her young sons to Normandy for safety, before being forced into exile there himself in 1013, when Sweyn Forkbeard seized the throne. Sweyn’s death early in 1014 offered Æthelred a way back and he sent Edward to England to negotiate his return with the English Witan, who invited Æthelred to resume the throne ‘if he would govern them better than he did before’.  Despite his promises, Æthelred proved just as inept as previously, failing to defeat the Danish invaders, led by Cnut. Æthelred died just two years later, on 23 April 1016 (ironically, St George’s Day), and was succeeded by his oldest surviving son by his first wife, Edmund II Ironside. Although Edmund put up a valiant fight against the Danish invaders, led by Cnut, a summer of fighting took its toll and he died on 30 November 1016.
Cnut took control of the whole of England and one of his first actions was to send for Emma, who he married on 2 July 1017. Although Emma appears to have had little influence during the reign of her first husband, her marriage with Cnut appears to have been a partnership. She was a more visible figure in public, enjoying considerable influence at court and offering substantial patronage to the church. She gave Cnut three children including a son, Harthacnut, and two daughters, one who’s name is lost, died aged 8 and is buried in Bosham, Sussex. A second daughter, Gunhilda, married Henry III, Emperor of Germany.
When Cnut died in 1035 Emma was in England and retired to her manor in Winchester, taking the royal treasury with her in the hope she could pass it to her son, Harthacnut. However, Harthacnut was in Denmark and it was Harold Harefoot, one of Cnut’s sons by Ælfgifu of Northampton, who seized the initiative. An agreement was reached whereby the half-brothers ruled as co-kings with Emma acting for Harthacnut and ruling in Wessex. However, two years later Harthacnut had still not returned to England and Harold took the crown for himself, driving Emma into exile with Count Baldwin in Flanders.
Harthacnut appears to have been, by far, Emma’s favourite child. It was for his accession to the English throne that she schemed, rather than for her eldest son, Edward. In the early months of 1040 she and Harthacnut were preparing to invade England when they heard of Harold’s death. Harthacnut succeeded to the English throne without a fight and a year later invited his half-brother Edward, who had spent almost 25 years in Norman exile, to join him in England as his successor.
Harthacnut reigned for just ten days short of two years, he died after collapsing during a wedding celebration at Lambeth. He was buried alongside his father in the old minster at Winchester and Emma gave the head of St Valentine to the new minster for her son’s soul. Emma’s relationship with Edward, however, was more strained than that she experienced with Harthacnut. Years of separation and a strong sense of abandonment on Edward’s part cannot have helped the situation. Following his coronation in 1043, one of Edward’s first actions was to ride to Winchester and take charge of the Treasury, which had been left in his mother’s hands by Harthacnut. Accompanied by the three greatest earls of his realm – Siward, Godwin and Leofric – ‘they deprived her of all the treasure that she had; which were immense; because she was formerly very hard upon the king her son, and did less for him than he wished before he was king…’ 
Emma’s friend and close adviser, Bishop Stigand, was deprived of his bishopric, although he was later reinstated and created Bishop of Winchester. He eventually rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury but was removed from office by William the Conqueror. However, at the time of her disgrace, Emma and Stigand’s close relationship gave rise to a later legend that they were more than friends and that Emma was accused of adultery with Stigand (although the 13th century story claimed the bishop’s name was Ælfwine). There is no contemporary evidence of the story, however, and it first appears more than 100 years after the Conquest. As the story went, Emma was accused of adultery and required to walk across red-hot ploughshares in order to prove her innocence. Being neither cut nor burned by the instruments she was declared innocent. As a consequence, Emma was welcomed back into the royal circle by a contrite Edward.
Although the story is almost certainly a fabrication, Emma was eventually reconciled with Edward, although she enjoyed a much less exalted position as the king’s mother than she had when Harthacnut reigned. She eventually retired to her own estates, living away from the limelight until her death on 6 March 1052. She was buried in the old minster at Winchester, alongside her second husband, Cnut and her favourite son, Harthacnut. Emma’s story forms the basis for the book Encomium Emmae Reginae, possibly commissioned by Emma herself, which provides a significant insight into English politics for the first half of the 11th century.
Emma had played a pivotal role in English politics in the first half of the 11th century, the effects of which would lead to the fateful events of 1066. She helped to shape the events from which the unique situation of the Norman Conquest would arise. A prominent figure, particularly in the reigns of Cnut and Harthacnut, she was the most distinguished woman of her time. More than any other single person, Emma’s story provides the background to the Norman Conquest through the political and personal relationships formed in the first half of the 11th century.
Footnotes:  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram;  ibid.
Picture credits: Detail of Emma of Normandy before an altar courtesy of the British Library; Edward the confessor courtesy of Wikipedia; coin from the reign of Harthacnut, courtesy of Hedning, taken from Wikipedia; Genealogical table of Cnut, Harold I and Harthacnut from the Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, British Library; Winchester Cathedral courtesy of Anne Marie Bouchard.
Sources: The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.com.
Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is available from Amazon UK, Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.
Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:
Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World, is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon.
©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly